The Impact of Digital Nomads on Local Communities
Let’s talk about something that caught my attention in today’s interconnected world: digital nomadism! The idea of working remotely and hopping around beautiful destinations sounds like a dream. And I’m not alone in thinking this – although the number of digital nomads worldwide is challenging to calculate precisely, estimates suggest that tens of millions now embrace this lifestyle, with millions more aspiring to join this movement (Robison). With its strong appeal to balanced leisure, personal life, and independence from one working location, digital nomadism has rapidly spread across the globe (de Almedia et al.).
Recently, I had a fascinating conversation about the ins and outs of digital nomadism with Keri Pfeiffer, the Head of Account Management for WeTravel, guest instructor for RISE Travel Institute, and a seasoned digital nomad since 2017. Here are my thoughts.
Beauty of Cultural Exchange & A Word of Caution
One of the absolute highlights of digital nomadism is the beautiful cultural exchange it fosters. Imagine: curious travelers embarking on a journey to learn about the world, immersing themselves in new cultures, and engaging with locals to practice new languages and traditions. As Keri aptly puts it, once you embark on the digital nomad journey, it’s hard to stop. When asked about her motivations to live a nomadic lifestyle, she says, “[I] crave the movement: the change of scenery, the learning and experiencing new cultures, meeting new people, and trying new food.”
Simultaneously, nomads can share their own culture with the local community, promoting understanding, appreciation, and mutual learning. This cultural exchange can create a bridge between differences and foster a celebration of diverse cultures.
However, before packing my bags and diving into the digital nomadism movement, there’s a plethora of questions that demand careful consideration. I’m treading with caution because while cultural exchange has the incredible power to be enriching and transformative, it can also have adverse effects on the local people.
Is this cultural exchange mutually beneficial? Do the locals even want to engage with foreigners? How do I find that out?
Am I educated about the local customs, traditions, and social norms?
How can I dress appropriately to show respect for local cultural and religious practices?
Am I aware of any specific cultural taboos or sensitive topics that should be avoided in conversation or behavior?
Have I researched and understand the local etiquette, such as greetings, gestures, and social interactions?
Am I aware of cultural differences and avoiding stereotypes?
Am I actively seeking to learn and understand? Am I willing to put in the effort to learn the local language?
Am I mindful of my impact on the environment and community?
Am I cautious about promoting cultural appreciation rather than appropriation, ensuring I’m not taking elements of a culture out of context or disrespecting their significance?
I’ll be honest: I don’t have the answers to these questions. I also can’t promise that answering these questions will guarantee a completely positive, mutually beneficial exchange of cultures. What these questions do offer is a steppingstone towards more conscious and mindful discussions about our impacts as digital nomads, or even more broadly, as travelers.
Economic Boost & Some Caveats
Another huge advantage of digital nomadism is the economic stimulus brought by nomads to destination communities. By reviewing existing research, I discovered that as visitors set up temporary bases, they often contribute to the local economy through their spending on accommodations, dining, transportation, and leisure activities.
According to Keri, this is particularly true for destinations that may not be widely popular among traditional tourists. Digital nomads typically choose destinations that offer a lower cost of living compared to their home countries. This affordability enables them to stretch their income further, allowing them to invest more in local businesses, fostering growth and generating employment opportunities within the community.
However, it is crucial to acknowledge the counterargument that the economic benefit is contingent upon the digital nomads directing their expenditures towards local businesses – and not all globetrotters prioritize this.
Due to the ever-growing influence and convenience of conglomerates like Airbnb and Uber, a significant number of nomads heavily depend on global online platforms and large international corporations to meet their travel needs. This reliance often leads to leakage, a phenomenon in which a portion of the revenue generated by the travel industry (think: hotels, transportation, restaurants, and entertainment) doesn't stay within the local destination economy but instead “leaks” out to external sources.
Gentrification is another complex economic side effect of digital nomadism. Keri shares that with Westerners representing the majority of digital nomads due to their economic privileges and passports, there is a tendency for certain destinations to adjust their prices and offerings to cater specifically to this demographic. This trend perpetuates economic disparities and creates a sense of exclusivity of locals within their own communities, where the needs and preferences of the local population are overshadowed by the interests of the nomadic workforce.
Take Mexico City for example. The influx of American and European digital nomads in Mexico City, utilizing platforms like Airbnb for long-term rentals, has driven up housing prices, and in some cases, displaced local residents (Shortell). According to an interview conducted by the New York Times, tenants were informed that their leases would not be renewed, only to find their units listed on Airbnb at outrageous rates (Shortell). This process has sparked accusations of gentrification and the sense of modern-day “colonization”, as housing activists in Mexico City express concerns about the increasing unaffordability for many Mexicans (Shortell).
So How Can We Become Conscious, Mindful Digital Nomads?
Here are Keri’s top tips:
Tip #1 - Support local businesses!
One of the top ways to do this is to find and stay at locally owned apartments. Keri specifically likes to look for women-owned or minority-owned businesses. She says, “It’s harder to find locally owned businesses/apartments on Google or Yelp – finding local businesses takes more intentionality. Your best bet is word of mouth or asking local people.”
Tip #2 - Learn the local language, even if it’s a little
Not only will learning the local language help you navigate the country more confidently, but it also shows respect for the local culture and demonstrates your genuine interest in engaging with the community. By speaking the local language, you open doors to authentic experiences, immersing yourself in the local lifestyle, traditions, and hidden gems. Discovering the language of your travel destination will deepen your understanding of the place as well as cultivate a greater appreciation for the diverse world we inhabit. Remember, your effort to learn, not perfect fluency, will show that you are trying to be respectful!
For further reading on this topic, check out:
Tip #3 - The most fun advice of all: follow your passion!
Being a conscious digital nomad doesn’t always have to feel like work! Keri’s love of animals naturally led her to explore opportunities for working with animal-related causes. Keri shares, “I try not to do animal-based tourism unless it’s very respectful or scientific. Rather, I volunteer at dog shelters or foster dogs whenever I can during my travels.”
This is a fantastic way to actively participate in the local community while finding personal fulfillment. It's a win-win!
Keri with her first foster dog!
Conscious Travel Collective designs immersive travel for small groups who want to experience travel through the eyes of locals, and seek to meet their hosts from a place of reciprocity, for an exchange that’s meaningful and authentic!
Our founder and CEO, Tara, also offers a few recommendations:
Tip #4 - Rent a room from locals instead of booking hotels or Airbnbs
"I know it can be really tempting to want your own space, but rather than renting a whole apartment, I suggest renting a room in the home of a local. Not only is this a safe way to ensure you are directly supporting the local economy, but you’ll also gain precious access to people in the community, who you can build a relationship with. Maybe you’ve already experienced a kitchen-table moment where without sharing much language, or shared background, you’ve been able to enjoy a bond, a laugh, a connection – this can be your daily reality with a homestay! Pretty incredible opportunity, right?"
"I suggest renting a room in the home of a local. [You'll] gain precious access to people in the community, who you can build a relationship with." -- Tara Busch
Tip #5 - Experience the city like a local
"Similar to the suggestion above, spend your time in areas that are more local than the main tourist zones. To use a hometown example, rather than Time Square, head to the Upper West Side or Crown Heights in Brooklyn. This doesn’t guarantee all businesses are owned and operated within the community, but it certainly helps, while also giving you an experience that’s more typical of the area that you’ll find in prime tourist zones."
Tip #6 - Utilize technology
"Utilize technology to find groups with similar goals, and experiences in this specific community. Look for online groups, or pages where people share questions and experiences that relate to the place you’ll be visiting. Chances are folks will share all kinds of suggestions, including favorite remote working spots, markets, cafes and restaurants, parks and outdoor spaces, where to go for fitness, etc. Plus, you’ll find a wealth of knowledge on general things like how to get around, customs to be aware of, and important holidays. You might even find other nomads to connect with, just be mindful of in-person meet ups and use good judgment."
Tip #7 - Again, learn the local language!
"Maybe the most important thing you can do when out of your native country, no matter the duration of the trip, is to learn a bit of the local language before you go! My favorite phrase to know in the local language is, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak ______, do you speak English?” – This small step is important in reshaping colonial mindsets, that might sound more like, “Do you speak English.” The former way of identifying your language will also remind you that you are a guest, and to show deference to the local ways of living."
Through my research (both delving into academic literature and engaging in conversations with digital nomads themselves), I’ve come to realize that digital nomadism is far from being a simple, idyllic notion of globetrotting. Rather, it is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon that impacts real people and real communities, and a decision to become a digital nomad shouldn’t be made lightly.
Don’t be discouraged! When approached thoughtfully and responsibly, digital nomadism can be a positive force. The fact that you have taken the time to read through this blog is evidence of your commitment to being a conscientious global citizen. I hope this serves as a starting point for your journey towards becoming a conscious traveler!
RISE Travel Institute, a nonprofit organization that "inspires responsible, impactful, sustainable and ethical travel through education", has a number of courses on sustainable travel. Check out Keri's short course on traveling ethically as a digital nomad.
Read our other blogs related to conscious traveling:
Hello! I'm Anna Jo, an intern for Conscious Travel Collective. My upbringing in sunny California, combined with my South Korean heritage, has instilled in me a deep passion for cross-cultural connections. Currently pursuing an M.S. in Global Affairs at NYU, I'm deeply passionate about the sustainable travel industry and its potential to foster meaningful connections. Thanks for stopping by!
Shortell, David, and Alejandro Cegarra. 2022. “As Remote Workers Flock to Mexico City, Airbnb and Housing Prices Soar.” The New York Times, December 28, 2022, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/28/world/americas/mexico-city-airbnb-remote-workers.html.
Robison, Jesse. “Digital Nomads.” Advocate (Idaho State Bar), vol. 64, no. 5, May 2021, pp. 38–41. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edshol&AN=edshol.hein.barjournals.adisb0064.52&site=eds-live.
M. A. de Almeida, A. Correia, D. Schneider and J. M. de Souza, "COVID-19 as Opportunity to Test Digital Nomad Lifestyle," 2021 IEEE 24th International Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work in Design (CSCWD), Dalian, China, 2021, pp. 1209-1214, doi: 10.1109/CSCWD49262.2021.9437685.